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Midway Connections – Keeping Parents and Children Impacted by Domestic Violence Safe

The Midway Connections program, located at Metropolitan’s Midway Center on Chicago’s Southwest Side, provides supervised visitation and safe exchange services for families that have experienced domestic violence. In supervised visitation situations, parents have a court order that mandates they must spend time with their kids under supervised conditions. Staff are not part of the visit, but they watch the families’ interactions, intervening if anything is said or done that is inappropriate, in terms of being threatening or violent. The ultimate goal is safety for all involved.

“Some families come in as they are in the middle of a divorce, or right after establishing parentage,” says Project Director Monica, who oversees Midway Connections. “Some come in with recent orders of protections. Some have pending criminal charges. We are a domestic violence program. We put physical space between both parents when we provide services. We also intervene in the cycle of violence. The violence stops when families come to the [Midway] center and come to us.”

Safe exchange is an exchange of children between parents. This is how it works: The visiting parent has unsupervised time with their child (an afternoon, weekend, etc.) at the location of their choice. Metropolitan staff come between the visiting and custodial parents as the children are exchanged for the visit. The parents never see each other. Everyone’s safety is the priority.

“MFS is one of only three agencies in all of Chicago that provides supervised visits and safe exchange for FREE,” Monica says. “We are an essential part of family life, being able to facilitate parents having this contact with their children.”

When sheltering in place was mandated in Illinois due to COVID-19, and in-person contact with clients stopped, Monica initially thought no visits would be possible – that Midway Connections would have to be shut down. Then in speaking with Program Director Elena Calafell and Midway Center Executive Director Laurie Sedio, an idea was born: What if they offered services by phone? And Monica ran with the idea “like a football player with a football!”

She started by assessing available technology – the details of how the calls would be conducted. Monica and one of her colleagues experimented with using office phone lines and cell phones, and discovered cell phones provided the best control for monitoring. On office phones, if staff hung up, clients could still be online. Via an iPhone, Monica can initiate and merge calls and block numbers if needed.

Next, Monica and her team started assessing which client families might be eligible for phone visitation services. They looked for families that respected and followed Midway Connections’ rules. Then they began contacting the program’s protected clients to ask questions. Would they be interested in participating in supervised visitation via phone? Did they have any safety issues or concerns? They also asked about practical issues, such as did the other parent already have phone access to the children?

After the screening process, the “Gomez” family (real name concealed to protect their identity) was eligible to participate. The Midway Connections program works with them weekly, and the children already speak with their non-custodial parent, their father, via phone. The family has an order of protection, but there have been no issues, and the mom was open to the father and kids participating in the phone visitation.

To ensure safety for all, Monica S. set guidelines and expectations for the phone visit. She asked the mom to provide privacy for the kids and their father during the conversation. Meanwhile, Monica would be on the line throughout and would initiate the call between the father and the sons.

Monica asked the client to talk with her sons first, to make sure they would be OK with the call as well. “Our key focus is on the kids, making sure they agree and are comfortable with the arrangement,” Monica says. “Metropolitan’s focus is on safety, not on forcing visits.” The boys, including a teen and older youth, were willing.

Monica then reached out to the boys’ father for the first time, to offer the opportunity for the call and set up a day and time. He was very interested in participating. Monica reviewed guidelines and expectations, emphasizing their similarity to those used for the in-person visits the father had followed with his sons throughout the year.

When it was time for the call, Monica spoke with the boys, to make sure they wanted to participate and understood everything. She then dialed their dad, merged the calls, and it went “really well.” The technology worked fine – all heard clearly, there were no issues.

The call was short – about five minutes – but it was a quality call. The dad and the sons had not had contact for about three weeks – coinciding with the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. They talked about the pandemic – the dad wanted to make sure his sons were OK, emphasizing he wanted them to be safe and stay safe.

“With all that’s going on in the news, not knowing how your loved ones are doing is very difficult,” Monica adds.

When the phone call ended, Monica called the boys right away, and asked them what they thought of the call. She also asked them to complete a brief survey, to let her know if there was anything they would change, looking for ways she and her team might improve arrangements. She also asked if they had any questions. “I got short answers (like young people give), but they were glad that their dad was OK,” Monica says.

The family has participated in the calls weekly, for about four weeks (to date), and the virtual visits have been a success. Since then, the calls have moved to the Zoom platform, enabling the dad and his sons to see each other. Though functioning during the pandemic has been challenging, Midway Connections staff are passionate about their work, and are finding successful ways to keep families connected and safe.